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  • Writer's pictureBecca Whitham


A few months ago, I decided on "Love. History." as my author tag line. The other option I seriously considered was "TRUE Love." My purpose in writing fiction is to demonstrate the difference between what popular culture calls love and what real, honest, true love looks like. Because I have chosen to do that using historical settings, I settled on the first tag line. Regardless of setting, I want to portray real love to the best of my ability.

Today I was introduced to a new-to-me scientific study on relationships that is going to help me do that better. It's called Attachment Theory. The basic premise is that everyone, no matter their age, needs to attach to someone with strong emotional bonds. Back in the 1930's scientists introduced us to the idea that emotional bonding between infants and mothers was important to child development. According to a man who was at the training I went to today, Nazi scientists - in a test to see what language babies would develop on their own if no one spoke to them - provided for physical needs of babies but banned nurses from speaking to them. These infants turned their faces to the walls and died. (I haven't checked out the veracity of this story, but it is similar to one I heard back in school.)

John Bowlby, the Englishman who first postulated the Attachment Theory, was widely ridiculed. Before his theories were proved, people believed that emotional distance and strict adherence to rules would produce strong, self-sufficient adults. Sick children were dropped off at hospitals alone and parents were allowed to visit for an hour a day; wealthy people hired nannies to raise their children. Bowlby was raised in the traditional "uppercrust" manner of visiting with his parents for an hour a day until he was twelve when he was allowed to join the dinner table for dessert only. Soon after, he was sent away to boarding school. Only after other scientists proved the importance of attachment (see Harlow's Monkeys or The Strange Situation), did child-rearing methods in North America change radically.

But Bowlby maintained that adults had the same need for attachment. Again, his theory was ridiculed. The general belief was - and still is - that adults needed to grow up into independence and self-sufficiency, and that any dependence on others was weakness or immaturity. Research into adult attachment began just before Bowlby's death in 1990. Phil Shaver and Cindy Hazan, then at the University of Denver, decided to ask men and women about their love relationships to see if they mirrored the same responses and patterns as mothers and children.

Short version: they did.

I won't go into everything their research found. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect. (If you wish to read more, you can purchase either Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson or Created for Connection by Dr. Sue Johnson with Kenneth Sanderfer which has the same scientific theory but correlates it to scripture). To set the stage for this, I highly encourage you to view The Still Face Experiment video below.

When the mother gave her child no emotional response, it reacted by reaching out to beg for attachment, turning away, and screaming. Well folks, I hate to tell you, but we adults are no different. We just do it "better." Or maybe we do it worse. Whichever way you look at it, when we feel insecure in love, it's so uncomfortable we have to do something about it. Below are some short excerpts from Created for Connection, pp. 62-63. The previous pages showed us a fight between "Sarah" and "Tim." Sarah is the screamer; Tim turns away. What I want you to hear is the conversation they had after they recognized that what they were really trying to elicit from their partner during their fights was an answer to the questions "Can I count on you? Do I matter to you? Are you there for me?"

Here's Sarah: "I guess I do come on heavy. I do get hostile. I feel so let down. So I confront you to get you to see...what is happening and come back to me. But it just drives you away and into justifying yourself. And I guess I seem pretty you retreat even more. Then I get even more upset."

And here's Tim: "You're right. Last night, at that moment, I could not hear your hurt. All I see is your anger at times like that. All I hear is that I have blown it again. Failed again. I just never can get it right. So I guess I just try to put a lid on everything...But do you think I don't know that I'm losing you?"

Wow! She's afraid of losing him so she yells to get him to come back to her; he's afraid he's losing her so he tries to put a lid on it. Screaming and withdrawing. They don't work. The only option which does is the scariest of all - reaching out to beg for attachment. Being vulnerable. Telling the person with the greatest power to hurt you what you need so they can stop hurting you.

This theory is going to redefine how I think about TRUE Love.

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